LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, a prisoner under arrest for treason faced his judge. The judge asked him about his beliefs and his political aspirations. “You can accuse me of wanting to be a ruler,” the prisoner replied, “but all I can say is that I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The judge was deeply scornful. “What is truth?” he said, and turned on his heel and walked away.
If you were working for a great empire, as was this judge and governor, you would be far more concerned about power than about truth. In fact, later in the trial, the judge reminded his prisoner that he had the power to release or execute him. The judge cared more about enhancing his own power and reputation in the empire than about meting out justice. The life of a powerless prisoner, along with the concept of truth, was expendable.
Today, truth itself may be expendable in the United States. A few years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe that reality. But in the power struggle of our recent presidential election and the resulting shift in leadership, truth is becoming more and more squishy. Thus the Oxford English Dictionary added a stronger word in 2016: “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As Oxford’s usage example puts it, “in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.” No doubt the fake news we have seen and heard on social media is sure to continue.
The trial of Jesus
As any alert reader knows, the above exchange took place between the prisoner Jesus and the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, according to the gospel of John (18:28-19:16). The trial of Jesus recorded here is a literary masterpiece that includes a third character, the cadre of high priests who were in charge of the Jerusalem temple. Issues of truth, truthiness, and political power weave a deadly dance throughout these chapters as Jesus’ fate hangs in the balance.
But before we examine this pivotal scene, let’s debunk some traditional interpretations of this trial, and then probe the historical background that created the delicate balance of power between the Roman governor and the temple high priests.
For centuries, Christians mistreated Jews, calling them “Christ-killers.” John’s gospel does present “the Jews” as opponents and enemies of Jesus, but the author is referring only to the wealthy, elite Judeans who run the temple system. It is they, not the ordinary peasants, who want to hand Jesus over to Pilate for execution. And since they are the priestly rulers of the Jerusalem temple, the events have been seen as religious rather than political. In contrast, Pilate has often been perceived as an ineffectual or even kindly governor who tries unsuccessfully to get Jesus released—which only heightens supposed Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s crucifixion.
But the reality was very different.
The intrigues of the 1 percent
Palestinian Jews had remained under Persian control until Alexander the Great conquered Palestine and much of the known world around 330 B.C.E. After he died, Alexander’s generals carved up the Greek/Hellenistic Empire. First, Ptolemy took Palestine, along with Egypt. More than 100 years later, the Seleucid government in Syria annexed Palestine.
By the 170s B.C.E., the ambitious Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV wanted to stamp out Palestinian Judaism entirely and replace it with Hellenistic culture and religion. You can read about this struggle in the inter-testamental book 1 Maccabees. The revolt of 167 B.C.E. was begun by the law-observant Maccabean family, who were able to fight off the Seleucids, purify the Jerusalem temple, and lay the groundwork for an independent state run by the “priest-kings” of the temple system. This lasted 100 years.
But by 63 B.C.E., corruption and chaos among the high priests had pushed the Romans to annex Palestine. As was its custom, Rome established itself at the top of the pecking order and then ruled through the high priesthood of the Jerusalem temple, as well as through client-kings such as Herod the Great and his sons. The Jewish historian Josephus, in Jewish Antiquities, notes that the chief priests themselves were chosen by the Roman governors, then forced to collaborate with Rome as obedient clients. Thus, the role of these high priests was to preside over the temple with its lucrative system of laws, sacrifices, and festivals—and at the same time protect and serve the Roman occupation.
The Roman governor had the responsibility to settle disputes and keep order, collect taxes, and administer justice. Roman law—like much of U.S. law today—operated with a strong bias in favor of the elite and against those of lower status. Pontius Pilate (26 to 36 C.E.) was the fifth of a string of Roman governors of Judea and was as arrogant and cruel as the rest of them, as Warren Carter explains in John and Empire.
Then add to this complicated political system another category: lower class rebels and messiahs who believed God wanted them violently to overthrow the Romans. Such unrest pushed the priestly caste more strongly toward cooperation with the Roman governor and against the peasants, who comprised 90 percent of the population.
Into this mix comes Jesus of Nazareth who heals, feeds, and identifies with the peasants, teaching them that the way to God is not through sacrifices bought from corrupt high priests nor by fighting the Romans. This “rebel” Jesus, handcuffed and exhausted from an all-night trial before High Priest Annas (John 18:12-24), now stands in 18:28 before Pontius Pilate, the most powerful person in all Palestine.
Throughout this trial, Jesus is the pawn within a tit-for-tat honor challenge between these two political power blocs. If we read this scene straight, we will think that Pilate really does want to free Jesus and is a “good guy.” But our author is a genius with irony and double entendre, and things are not always what they seem. Instead, patron Pilate continually taunts his subordinate clients to remind them that Rome is in charge and they are not.
The dramatic impact of place
Notice the seven alternating scenes in this trial, with their outside and inside locations:
- Scene 1, outside ( 18:28-32). Pilate concedes to meeting the priests outside his headquarters ( praetorium), so they can (ironically!) avoid ritual defilement.
- Scene 2, inside ( 18:33-38a). Pilate enters the praetorium to interrogate Jesus.
- Scene 3, outside (18:38b-40). Pilate taunts the Judeans with a prisoner exchange.
- Scene 4, inside ( 19:1-3). Pilate and the soldiers mock Jesus by whipping him, crowning him with thorns, and clothing him in purple.
- Scene 5, outside ( 19:4-7). Pilate mocks the Judeans by presenting their “king” to them.
- Scene 6, inside ( 19:8-12). Pilate tries to figure out Jesus, and fails.
- Scene 7, outside ( 19:13-16a). Pilate pronounces sentence.
Why must Jesus die?
Scene 1 is an honor challenge. The temple high priests have decided in 11:47-53 that Jesus must die because he raised Lazarus from death, thus one-upping them. But if they stone him for religious reasons, this will turn the common people against them. Rome must view him as a political threat and crucify him for treason. Hence their smart-alecky retort in 18:30, indicating that, of course, Jesus is a criminal. Why else would they have brought him to Pilate?
Scene 2 clarifies that the Judeans have presented Jesus’ crime as rebellion against Rome. He is a would-be messiah trying to overthrow the Romans and rule Palestine. “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asks Jesus, who counters with another question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
The following conversation highlights the spiritual gulf between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate has no clue what Jesus is talking about (and readers often don’t either). The kingdom “not of this world” ( 18:36) is not a heavenly realm but the alternate community of those who accept the truth of Jesus’ teachings and live in this world nonviolently. Pilate sarcastically asks, “What is truth?” and then leaves without waiting for an answer.
Scene 3. Outside again, Pilate insists the Judeans have no case against Jesus, and shrewdly offers to free him according to Passover custom. But these high priests would rather cope with Barabbas, a violent rebel. ( Lestes, the Greek word describing Barabbas, specifically refers to revolutionaries in the movement in Upper Galilee trying to overthrow the Romans militarily. They hung out in nearly inaccessible caves and attacked Romans whenever they could.) The gospel author highlights this irony to expose the high-priestly hypocrisy. To them, a teacher and healer who nonviolently undercuts their power is more threatening than an actual revolutionary!
Scene 4. Jesus is flogged (reminiscent of CIA torture to find out the “truth”). He is stripped and beaten front and back with a whip made of leather thongs tipped with metal points. Then the soldiers make a crown from a thorny bush and wrap him in a purple cloak as a parody of royalty. The shaming is deliberate. Ha! What kind of Judean king is this?
Scene 5. Pilate belittles the temple priests by showing them their “king.” He taunts them by declaring Jesus innocent. But the priests seek to scare Pilate in 19:7 by charging Jesus with the crime of claiming to be “a son of a god” (literally, in Greek).
Scene 6. This charge finally shakes up Pilate, because only the Roman emperor was considered “a son of a god.” (The NRSV misses the political point by calling Jesus “the Son of God.”) Back inside, Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” unknowingly echoing the theme throughout this gospel that Jesus is “from above” (for example, 3:31). Maintaining honor, Jesus is silent, finally responding that Pilate has no authority to release or crucify him unless it was given “from above” (19:11). Again, Pilate taunts the crowd by threatening to release Jesus. They rise to the bait with a counterthrust: “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor!”
Scene 7. Pilate further ups the ante by bringing Jesus outside again. I prefer the NRSV’s alternate reading that Pilate seats Jesus on the judge’s bench, and then provocatively calls out, “Here is your king!” Infuriated, the Judeans finally say what Pilate is waiting to hear: “We have no king but the emperor!”
With these words, comments Carter, the high priests repudiate their ancient covenant with God alone as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 8:7;Psalm 47:2; 93:1). Their deeper commitment is with their Roman allies. As readers, we are not surprised, for the high priests have continually opposed God’s messenger, Jesus, throughout this gospel. They have caved in to the Roman Empire.
Pilate has won their allegiance and immediately hands Jesus over to be crucified. But the Judean leaders have also gotten what they wanted: a political execution by Rome, not a religious stoning. No blood on their hands!
So the prisoner hangs naked and dishonored for all the onlookers to see and scorn. A mocking sign (19:19) hangs over his bleeding head. It is Pilate’s last sarcastic jab at the Jewish leaders: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Behold the death of truth in the face of power.
But by the end of this narrative, truth will have the last word. Ironically, Jesus’ path to glory and honor with the Father is through the dishonor of the cross. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32).
With whom will we identify?
Twenty centuries later, our nation is confronting similar issues of truth in the face of power. As a white, middle-class American citizen, I am realizing how much I have taken freedom and democracy for granted all my life. After the election, as I expressed my shock and fear to the small group I belong to in my church, one well-traveled friend reminded us that most Christians throughout history, and into the present, have lived and suffered under repressive governments for whom power was vastly more important than truth. Furthermore, the U.S. military has often wielded global power not unlike the ruthless hegemony of the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day. (Think torture at black sites, drone attacks, Guantánamo, and much we are not told.)
With whom will U.S. Christians identify in the political maneuvers between Pilate, the chief priests, and Jesus? Are we willing to speak and live truth in a “post-truth” culture? Will we stand with people who now live with new fears of harassment and assault? Or is it more expedient and safe to take the role of the religious leaders who compromised their core belief to get what they wanted?
Will people of faith in responsible positions—in politics, in the media, in education, or wherever they serve—stand up for truth and justice as Jesus did? Will ordinary people like most of us make sure we discredit “alternative facts” we hear that we know are not true? Will we refuse to excuse leaders who make deals without regard for basic human rights? Will we identify with the vulnerable people for whom Jesus’ gospel is good news, or will we compromise our commitment to the God of Jesus Christ by caving in to the god of “America first”?
“I came into the world to testify to the truth,” says Jesus to Pilate. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). In this time of political uncertainty, let us listen.